Leonardo’s Democratic Helicopter
A few people are aware, thanks mainly to a pulp airport novel and a subsequent movie, that the name Leonardo is associated not only with a photogenic Hollywood celebrity but also with an inventor and artist who lived many years ago and whose accomplishments outshine the aforementioned ephemeral celebrity by many orders of magnitude.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in April 1452 CE and thanks to the vagaries of historical chance as well as to his own accomplishments we now regard him as one of the greatest polymaths of all time.
He was certainly an accomplished artist and like many other inquisitive individuals of his time who possessed sufficient wealth for thoughtful leisure he exhibited a deep interest in the physical world. Although he was born “out of wedlock” as the quaint phrase puts it, his father arranged for him to be educated in the studio of the famous painter Andrea del Verrocchio. This enabled Leonardo to develop the artistic skills that, once he was established in his own studio courtesy of his father’s money, enabled him to earn a living producing paintings for the aristocrats of the day.
Leonardo had a prodigious imagination which he applied across a wide range of subjects including anatomy, civil and mechanical engineering, optics, manufacturing, cartography, and pure speculation. He’s glibly credited with the invention of helicopters and other mechanical devices, although this credit is entirely undeserved. Curiously, he never published his voluminous works and so his actual influence on the course of events was minimal. His automated bobbin-winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire are believed to be the only two practical implementations of his many and varied ideas.
And that’s just as well.
Because when we look at Leonardo’s mechanical inventions, one thing becomes strikingly clear: most of them were hopelessly inadequate. This isn’t really Leonardo’s fault, because in his day the intellectual tools needed to distinguish idle fancy from practical ideas were absent. Calculus was still two and a half centuries in the future and the notion of empiricism was still struggling to pull itself clear of superstition, alchemy, and magic.
That’s why his flying machines are all totally useless and would fail if anyone attempted to use one in real life. Leonardo had no conception of the fundamental problems of flight, nor the limitations of human anatomy. In consequence, every important element of his designs was wrong.
For Leonardo’s Archimedes-screw helicopter to work, for example, our atmosphere would have to be more dense than water and the human body would have to be totally different: much larger leg muscles with a much higher density of fast-twitch fibers and a cardiovascular system capable of supplying hundreds of times more oxygen and glucose than is actually the case. Our bones would have to be light and hollow in order to minimize weight. The machine itself would need to be constructed of material stronger and lighter than carbon fiber. And even then it wouldn’t work, because there is nothing in the design to offset the rotational torque created by the upward-facing screw.
Fortunately for us living today, modern aerospace engineers don’t rely on Leonardo’s ideas when they set out to design and build an aircraft. Today’s engineers utilize all the things we’ve learned since Leonardo’s day and that’s why our modern aircraft fly safely and transport hundreds of millions of people around the world every year without incident. Even the most ardent Leonardo enthusiast would probably not endorse a system of engineering that relied exclusively on Leonardo’s imaginings and resolutely ignored everything we know today about powered flight: fluid dynamics, thrust-weight ratio, glide angle, and thermodynamics.
Curiously however, this backward-looking focus is precisely how we run our political systems.
When it comes to governance we resolutely ignore all the great mass of knowledge we’ve acquired over the last century about human behavior, cognition, and hardwired limitations, and we instead we cling to Leonardo-type ideas about “how to make things work.”
Not surprisingly the outcomes are consistently disastrous. Like someone attempting to soar using a Leonardo flying machine, we experience only repeated failure and ignominy. Yet despite our endless procession of consistent mishaps we continue to hold tightly onto the belief that our Leonardo-type mechanism is the best and only possible way to do things.
Einstein is credited with having said, “Madness is doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different outcome next time.”
By that definition, we are all quite stark raving mad.
We’re so used to failing that we think our less serious failures are actually successes. It’s akin to running in concrete boots: we injure ourselves every time we make the attempt but we think torn skin and bruises are evidence of how clever we are because at least this time round we haven’t snapped our tendons and shattered our bones.
When we step back and let go of our unreasoning attachment to representative democracy, the deep systemic failings of the approach immediately become obvious.
First of all, we require absolutely no qualifications from any candidate anywhere. Provided someone can talk glibly and appeal to the base emotions of the masses, they are likely to garner a significant number of votes. Incompetence is definitely no barrier to success and most of today’s political class is hopelessly inept. Nor is lying an impediment; in fact, it’s impossible to imagine any politician anywhere being elected without dissimulating shamelessly. Our descent into a world of pure lies that has given us the democratic successes of Brexit and Trump is simply the inevitable progression of a core feature of representative democracy.
Just as we require no qualifications to stand as a candidate, we also require no qualifications to be permitted to vote aside from the single requirement that one must live long enough to reach voting age. A person can be totally ignorant and irredeemably simple-minded, harbor all manner of irrational prejudices and hatreds, and believe totally spurious nonsense, but as long as they are old enough to vote they can do so and we pretend to ourselves this is a sign of how tolerant and inclusive we are as a society.
This is no different from permitting people to drive without passing a driving test and then telling ourselves that despite all the carnage that results it’s proof of how tolerant and inclusive we are as a society. It’s akin to allowing people to practice neurosurgery merely because they tell us they’ll be “the best neurosurge, the greatest neuron, everybody says so, nobody knows New Ronnies like me.” It’s the same as letting anyone at all fly a passenger aircraft because “it will be so easy to do and everyone on board will get £350 a week from what we save by not paying a foreign so-called qualified pilot to do the job!”
Democracy comes with a big invisible sign saying No Qualifications Required.
Merely because the carnage happens later and therefore the causal chain is obscure to most people doesn’t mean that foolish voting is any less harmful than incompetent driving, untrained surgeons, or clueless pilots. Indeed, given the millions who die in wars and the millions who lose their livelihoods due to incompetent governance, we can easily argue that clueless driving, inept surgery, and incompetent flying collectively present a far smaller overall hazard than clueless voting that reliably delivers clueless governance.
Now let’s look at the notion of representation. Hundreds of years ago, the notion was that each village or town would elect a representative to carry their wishes to the parliament. But representatives quickly discovered that several hundred individuals acting separately could achieve nothing amid the cacophony. So, very quickly, groups of special interests formed and these quickly mutated into political Parties.
At this point representatives ceased to be representatives and instead became salespeople for the basket of policies believed by their Party to appeal to a sufficient number of voters.
From this point onward all concept of representation vanished and politicians started competing for votes by means of empty promises and false statements about their opponents. For this new self-referential clique of politicians the interests of “the folks back home” became far less important than their own desire to secure enough votes to remain in power. They became performers, fine-tuning their acts by doing more of whatever worked and dropping whatever was too complicated for ordinary people to respond to.
And the crowds lapped it up, because it was entertaining.
It would be lovely to imagine most citizens being intelligent enough to be able to reason from facts and intellectually curious enough to seek out relevant information. In reality the great mass of people are slow-witted and intellectually indolent. Most people believe whatever they are told by the purported authority figures they listen to and would never even think of fact-checking. Furthermore, studies show that when we cleave to an idea we then resolutely ignore all evidence to the contrary, even as the world burns down around us.
The very few intelligent and well-informed citizens that do exist are simply not worth any politician’s time. They would take too much effort to convince and they’d potentially change their allegiance based on real-world data. Fortunately for politicians, practically nobody cares about real-world data.
Imagine what would happen to the US Republican Party if even a small percentage of voters bothered to look at actual Republican policies (86% of Republican votes over the last 20 years were in support of measures to enrich billionaires and major corporations by increasing national debt) rather than simply accepting the false statements about fiscal probity and “being for the little guy” that all Republican politicians repeat ad nauseam.
Imagine if even a small percentage of Brexit voters had bothered to look for facts instead of blindly accepting the pack of lies spewed out by cynical and hugely ambitious Brexiteers.
But we do have to imagine, rather than look at the real world, because ordinary people never look for facts. Ordinary people always, everywhere, simply believe whatever they’re told. The concept of fact-checking is entirely alien to the ordinary person. The Dunning-Kruger Effect means the less one knows the more confident one is in one’s knowledge.
Ignorance and stupidity win every time.
For every politician in existence it’s so much easier and so much more efficacious to woo the foolish and ignorant by means of lies and empty promises because no matter what happens afterward most voters will remain loyal for decades to come.
Representative democracy is the ignorant and foolish voting for the incompetent and mendacious.
No wonder we end up with World Wars, pointless invasions and regional wars, trade wars, societies riven by factional rivalries, incompetent economic policies, massive disparities in wealth and opportunity, and all manner of other self-harms on an astonishing scale. Representative democracy has given us Putin and Orban, Brexit and Trump, Erdogan and Duterte, Bolsonaro and Modi, and far too many others to enumerate. People like to forget (or never knew in the first place) that Hitler was democratically elected — a single fact which tells us all we need to know about representative democracy.
If democracy is supposed to be a successful system in action, one shudders to imagine what failure would look like.
Fortunately for our daily life and wellbeing we don’t let clueless people design and build any of our technologies. We insist on people demonstrating their competence before we permit them to perform any task of significance because we know otherwise the results would be disastrous. We’ve learned that wishful thinking never results in good outcomes.
Yet we continue to worship at the shrine of wishful thinking we call Representative Democracy.
We expect hopelessly unrealistic premises to yield positive real-world outcomes. And we continue to have this expectation despite democracy’s unbroken record of delivering disaster after disaster.
It really is long past time we stopped being so obtuse and started to take into account all we’ve learned over the last century about fundamental human cognitive limitations and behavioral hardwiring. Because otherwise we’ll keep on trying to fly in one of Leonardo’s impossible machines.
And we’ll keep on failing, at great cost.